Volume 3, Number 3 • August 2005
Better at 48 Than 68
By Joseph G. Murray
As practicing lawyers, we are each acquainted with at least one lawyer who knows that he or she should be doing something else in life rather than practicing law, but the change is always postponed. We also know at least one lawyer who is so incredibly unhappy practicing law that he or she should be doing anything but practicing law.
And then there is me. I was generally satisfied as a consumer debtors’ lawyer. I enjoyed the litigation, and I enjoyed teaching other lawyers, but then the outside world crept in. And the outside world included Judaism.
The chronology still strikes me. In 1995, at 40 years old, I stepped into a synagogue for the first time. I converted to Judaism three years later, and my bar mitzvah was in 2000. In 2002, I visited Israel for the first time. While there, I knew I would return.
I applied to the rabbinical school of the Reform movement later that year and was accepted in March 2003, conditioned upon my retaking a Hebrew proficiency examination. This was no easy task. Hebrew hadn’t come up often in my childhood in Appalachia, especially in an Irish Catholic household in which every brother was expected to be an altar boy. I learned in May of 2003 that I had passed the examination, and in July I landed in Jerusalem, Israel, to begin my first year of rabbinical school.
Most of my classmates were half my age, and none of them had converted to Judaism as an adult. However, all of them were bright and interesting, and committed to becoming rabbis, cantors, or Jewish educators.
The year in Israel was surely my most formative year as an adult; yet it flew by, as did the second year of school in New York City, a year that just ended this past May.
This August, the third of five years of education will begin. How am I spending the summer of 2005? I am employeed by a bankruptcy trustee with no shortage of litigation.
Do I miss practicing law on a full-time basis? Yes. I miss the writing, the advocacy, and the contacts with clients. Most of all, I miss the sense of accomplishment that one rarely feels in the classroom.
It goes without saying that not every son of an Irish Catholic household of thirteen children makes it to rabbinical school. However, two summers of practicing law, after twenty years of practicing law, have convinced me that the single largest obstacle to my becoming a rabbi was never my family or my childhood, but rather that I had first become a lawyer.
Admittedly, when I was admitted to rabbinical school, I had a secret weapon: a spouse with whom I had practiced law and who would cover for me while I exited a busy litigation practice on short notice. There is no doubt that without her, I could not have begun school. But even with this secret weapon, I had to make a decision to leave the law in the first place; in effect, I had to look at my colleagues and say, “What you and I do for a living just isn’t for me anymore. Although there’s nothing more important to you, there’s something much more important to me.” The explanations to some family and friends were even more difficult, because they were aware of the personal sacrifices required to become a student at age 48.
At least one person reading this story has seriously considered doing something else with his or her life. Before you procrastinate further, or allow a colleague to procrastinate further, please consider a question I was asked while interviewing for rabbinical school. The question, put to me in a room full of rabbis and other Jewish professionals, was as follows: “Mr. Murray, you seemed to have figured out an awful lot in the last few years, but if we admit you, you will be 48 years old when you begin your studies in Jerusalem. Don’t you wish you’d figured all of it out at age 28 instead of 48?”
My response, which put an end to the questions about age, was “It is better to figure it all out at age 48 than at age 68.”
For many practitioners whose lives should move in a different direction, the obstacle isn’t figuring anything out as much as it is doing something about it. If you are one of those who have considered change, do not look for it to be any easier at age 48 than it would have been at age 28. And if you are already 68, and you feel your time to move in a different direction has long since passed, remember my story the next time you are having a conversation with a practitioner, whether happy or unhappy, whether 28 or 48, who should be doing something else. Remind him or her that age 68 is right around the corner.
Joseph G. Murray is a student at Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City, and a member of the bars of Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wyoming, and New York. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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